Skip Navigation

Information Literacy and Writing

Information Literacy and Writing

Chuck Lewis
May 2006
Information Literacy Forum


Some Opening Concepts and Propositions

  1. We are responsible for teaching students about intellectual property, academic honesty, and the conventions of using sources in our disciplines.
  2. Plagiarism is less likely to happen if we attend to good assignment design and are involved in students' writing processes. This is a problem of teaching and learning more than detection and ethics.
  3. We need to unpack and address the various elements/skills involved in information literacy--locating, evaluating, integrating, and documenting the use of sources.
  4. Practice with using sources should not be isolated to a single compartmentalized "research" or "term" paper. These skills should be integrated developmentally in the course.
  5. We need to address two underlying and interrelated aspects of writing: composition process and rhetorical purposes.
  6. We need to change that long list of things they can't do into a manageable list of things we will teach them how to do in the context of our own course, then design assignments and activities accordingly.
  7. We need to being by revisiting some key concepts and contexts of using sources in writing.
    1. What do we mean by information literacy? Read/write what? How? Why?
    2. Why use sources?
      1. A functional response: information transfer, supporting claims with evidence, and engaging in dialogue in a "discourse community."
      2. A rhetorical response (ethos): authority, credibility, membership, honesty, courtesy, etc.
    3. Which sources should we use?
      1. Source-based criteria (internal vs. external factors)
      2. Purpose-based criteria (text and context)
        • credible, relevant, accessible, complementary fit/mix
        • always ask: what does this source enable me to do?
    4. How should we use these sources?
      1. "It's not just step one": The myth of the "stage-linear" model:
        • exploration, looping, and revision
      2. Rhetorical Purposes
        • how does this source fit my overall purpose?
        • how does this source fit my local purpose?
        • how does this source fit with my other sources?
      3. Integration and Documentation:
        • tell my reader which sources I have used
        • tell my reader where and how I'm using these sources
        • make decisions about reference, paraphrase, and quotation
        • how (and why) does this vary by discipline?

A Sample Set of Questions to Pose to Students (and address with them--it's a handout--not a hand-off!)

          Why should I use sources?

          What do I need to know?

          What is the conversation in which I want to participate?

          How can sources help me achieve my goals? What are my goals?

How do I find sources?
          How is information organized and located?
          Why is information organized this way?
          Where is the information I need and how do I find it?
          Do I need "first pass" sources to learn what sources I really need?
How should I select sources?
          Does this material come from a credible/appropriate source?
          Is the material itself accessible, manageable and relevant?
          Does this material serve my own rhetorical purposes?
                    -How does it serve my main objective
                    -How does it serve a local objective?
                    -How does it fit in with the other sources?
                    -When and why do I need to go back for more sources as my knowledge,
                    thinking, and writing continue to change and develop?
How should I integrate sources into my writing?
          When do I need to use sources generally?
          What is common knowledge? (contextual cues)
          What is intellectual property? What are the ideas and words someone can "own"?
          Where and why do I use the sources?
                    -revisit the questions above about rhetorical purposes
                    -keep asking: Why is this source here?
          How do I use sources in my writing?
          References: Why, when, and how?
          Paraphrasing: Why, when, and how?
          Quoting: Why, when, and how?
                    What are the rules for quotation?
                    How do I do brackets and ellipses?
                    How do I do page references?
                    How do I handle grammatical integration?
                    How do I do longer quotations?
How should I document sources?
          How will I tell my reader what sources I have used?
          How do I tell my reader where and how I have used them?
          Why are there different formats and styles?
How will my selection and use of sources evolve over the course of this process? Why?

Some Suggestions for Information Literacy in your Classroom

  1. Avoid "open" assignments or at least be prepared to be very involved in the process by which they select topics, do preliminary research, and articulate a working thesis or guiding problem early in the sequence.
  2. The most important step might be helping students to identify interesting questions or problems to which their research and writing is the response. You can model this by giving them good questions; discussing the problem posed in class readings; framing issues in terms of rhetorical modes; or using reading, earlier exploratory writing, and research activities to help them discover this. Ideally, this work will grow out of other work in the class. Never start at zero. Repeat this exercise after some preliminary research. Research problems and rhetorical solutions often evolve, and we need to show students how to learn from their learning.
  3. Consider having them specify an audience and articulating a rhetorical stance/role they want to take (contrarian, synthesizer, advocate, etc.)
  4. Break up the paper into steps--as well as components. Require a prospectus or abstract for feedback (from you and peers) early in the process. Have students do brief bibliographic annotations, as well as "data dialoging," in which they identify pairs/clusters of sources that have a specific relation to each other and/or possible function in the paper. Consider some other "conceptual" or structuring exercises other than outlines (such as schematic diagram) both earlier and later. If the paper has discrete sections or function, try assigning and responding to those blocks.
  5. The isolated "research" or "term" paper often manifests a drop in student writing because it combines (in part because we tend to conflate) the many distinct areas and steps--identifying topics and posing problems, identifying sources, locating sources, reading and evaluating sources, clarifying purpose and placement of sources, writing process, and use and documentation of sources. Instead, unpack and integrate at least some of the steps/aspects of working with souces on a smaller and possibly incrementally developed basis throughout the assignment--if not the course. To elaborate on some of this:
    1. Do they know how to read bibliographic entries? If you provide them with a sample list, will they know what these are? What do they need to know? What differences are significant in this instance? Talk about bibliographic form by way of a sample bibliography of sources relevant to your course and assignment.
    2. Do they know how to locate these sources? Are they familiar with or have a concept of the information landscape? Would a scavenger hunt help? Can you formulate a controlled list of resources from which they should draw their material (at least for a stage of the research project)?
    3. Do they know how to write or generate a bibliography for sources they find? What functions would an annotated version serve? How will you provide them with these format guidelines?
    4. Do you want them to learn how to evaluate sources? What are the criteria generally? For your assignment? For their particular project? Can you show them how to do this with some sample materials relevant to your assignment?
    5. Do you want them to use and cite sources? Will you show them how a relevant model text handles quotations, paraphrases, references, etc.? Identify a documentation format, review it, and supply or verify their access to a reference source (such as
  6. Have them read like writers. Have a discussion about why and how we use sources that combines general arguments with specific relevance not only to your particular assignment but also to the various student projects. Have the students discuss the use of sources in a shared reading--what, where, how, why.
  7. Address the issue of plagiarism repeatedly and variously. Explain what is means and describe its typical manifestations. Acknowledge the "gray" areas. Have a broader exchange about intellectual and creative property. Address motives for plagiarism, techniques for avoiding/detecting it, and consequences. Design assignments and practice a pedagogy that make plagiarism unlikely (focus and process). Familiarize yourself with some of the many sites online for some helpful supporting materials (for faculty and students), such as the following:
  8. Assign at least one short or "excerpt" paper (something before the full "draft") for early response and direction that focuses only on the mechanics and purposes of the source use. Use conferencing and/or small-group collaboration. For example, have a source-check exercise: "Why is this source here?" Put the students in small groups (2-3) and have each author read the draft aloud, stopping at each source used to explain the purpose of its presence and configuration.
  9. Have a small-group "thesis-structure" assignment in which students identify, analyze, and assess thesis statement and paper organization. Provide them with a list of questions:
    -definition, classification, clomparison, causality, exemplification, evaluation, etc.
    -these are useful handles for "global" and "local" frameworks
    -engage the question of purpose repeatedly and various stages of writing process
    -engage the question of purpose throughout the parts of the paper (sections/paragraphs)
    1. Can you underline the thesis statement? Is it clear and concise? Does it respond to or answer a question asked or problem posed? Does it go beyond a statement of fact? Is the thesis original? Can it be reasonably argued with logic and evidence? Is it feasible in scope?
    2. Similarly, have the students talk about the relationship between the thesis and the structure of the paper. How is the paper structure embedded in the structure of the statement? How does the organization and paragraphing deliver or make good on the promise generated by the "expectation" of the thesis? Can the student identify the key parts of the paper and them explain the links--the focus of each section and the nature of their order and relation? (I like this discussion at level of paragraphs, but students also need to return to a more macrotextual map of general rhetorical roles and purposes).
  10. One of the major challenges of research writing for students is producing focused and purposeful papers. Instead of being "data-dumpers," they need to think and write as "dialogic problem posers." You can help them realize and deliver this by giving them a menu of rhetorical modes or patterns of development that specify critical thinking operations:
  11. Have an activity/assignment about finding sources. Present them with a conceptual mapping of the information landscape generally, as well as how this is informed by your discipline or project. Don't underestimate how much these vary by context or discipline. Remember the difference between general skills and an understanding of how local practices vary generally. You might organize this by way of a series of binaries:
    1. Paper vs. electronic
    2. Primary vs. secondary
    3. Scholarly vs. popular
    4. Peer-reviewed vs. non-governance
    5. Books vs. articles
  12. Have a discussion about the use of sources in your discipline. For example, how is a scientific "literature review" different from how literary critics refer to sources in their own analysis? What about the use of direct quotation? Again address both "big picture" aspects of using sources with more local applications. Give students some examples from a relevant model text of different ways and aspects of integrating sources--paraphrase and summary, reference, and direct quotation (integrated and set off). Have them look at the mechanics of direct quotation (contextual bridging, punctuation, syntactic cohesion, etc.). Show them where and how to cite with your selected documentation style.
  13. Another good assignment is a "research narrative" (beyond a log) that describes and reflects metacognitively on all steps of the writing and research process. Try this as an occasional in-class writing exercise, especially to open up discussion, and then have student include a summa version at the end along with the paper/project. It's also a standard plagiarism-buster.